John Smith’s Bill: Then & Now

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In our May/June issue John Steele Gordon established a series of postulates to help determine that most elusive of historical questions, What was money really worth in the past? The question is of particular interest to James B. M. Schick, a professor of history at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, who is now working on a book on the computer-assisted teaching of history. Some years ago he became interested in the same problem—specifically, how much did John Smith’s colonists have to spend to equip themselves for their voyage to Virginia?—and he went about seeking the solution in a heroically direct way. Schick’s hands-on approach to determining the value of currency nearly four centuries ago not only yields convincing results; it also offers us an oblique and informative look at America’s colonial beginnings.

 

Capt. John Smith published in 1624 “a particular of such necessaries as either private families, or single persons, shall have cause to provide to go to Virginia.” Having often studied that list for what it could tell me about those hardy Englishmen who left home and hearth to venture to the shores of the river James, I also marveled at the cost: twelve pounds (£), six shillings (s), and three pence (d), sterling, to provide a year’s supply of tools, clothing, food, and cooking ware.

 

As I pondered the inventory, I found myself becoming interested in trying to determine what Smith’s list would cost today. To start with, I made several qualifying decisions:

1. I would select only items readily available in my area or from one of the many general-merchandise and specialty mail-order catalogues.

2. I would get as close an approximation as I could to the item Smith specified, and I vowed I would “buy modern” only when I had to because that item was no longer made. I also decided that I would not slavishly follow the captain’s list; if something would be unnecessary today, I would omit the item and save the money.

3. I would get good quality when I could and opt for durability over fashion or style, and I would pay a little extra for that assurance.

4. I would use no power tools.

5. I would use approximate prices, rounding up or down to the nearest dollar as seemed reasonable in each case.

Most of my in-person price hunting took place at Wal-Mart Discount City, True Value Home Center, Beitzinger Hardware and Furniture Store, Earl Evans Retail Liquor Store, Dillon grocery store, and Consumers Market grocery store—all in Pittsburg. Among the catalogues I used were those of Sears, Roebuck and Company; L. L. Bean; Eddie Bauer; Norm Thompson; Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Company; Rio Grande Jewelers Supply; and Brookstone Hard-to-Find Tools. In addition I made telephone calls to the Pittsburg State University reference librarian, the Pittsburg police department, the Pittsburg Awning Company, International Tours of Pittsburg, and Pittsburg Transfer and Storage Company, the local agent for North American Van Lines. Though I drew some suspicious looks from store clerks as I waded through the list, I met with a good deal of cooperation once I’d explained what I was up to (and, my son tells me, a good many puzzled looks and shaken heads as they returned to their tasks). My telephone contacts were equally courteous and helpful.

Here is my update of Smith’s “particulars.”

Apparel 

A Monmoth cap. 1s. 10d.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a “flat round cap formerly worn by soldiers and sailors.” Bauer offers a sailor’s “watch cap” of 85 percent wool and 15 percent nylon with a Gore-Tex “membrane” for $15. [$15]

3 falling bands. 1s. 3d.

Since few men now wear separate collars, this seemed an unnecessary expense. But we do adorn our necks these days with ties, so I picked three hand-woven Pendleton wool plaid ties from L. L. Bean for $16 each. [$48]

3 shirts. 7s. 6d.

I decided to go with one light blue Sears Best work shirt, made of polyester and cotton, for $13.96; a Pendleton wool dress shirt in Manson tartan (red, navy, and forest green) from L. L. Bean for $48.50; and one of the Sears blue oxford cloth dress shirts for $14.88. [$77]

1 waistcoat. 2s. 2d.

Called a vest more commonly now, this garment presented me with several alternatives, but I chose the Sears catalogue’s $19.98 long-sleeve sweater vest of acrylic because it could be worn in most seasons and situations. [$20]

1 suit of canvas. 7s. 6d.